David Zipper is a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Taubman Center for State and Local Government. He writes frequently about the future of urban mobility and technology.
If you’ve ever scowled in frustration as you toggle between apps searching for the nearest e-scooter or cheapest ride-hail trip, keep an eye on the skirmish currently brewing in New York City over access to the Citi Bike bikeshare system: It’s a fight that is poised to spill into other cities, with major implications for how Americans plan and book urban trips.
The conflict pits ride-hail behemoth Lyft against a startup called Transit, whose app allows users to plan and book trips across a variety of urban modes. Last year, Lyft acquired a company that owns and operates Citi Bike, and earlier this year Lyft began allowing users to unlock bikes from within the Lyft app itself. In response, in September Transit began allowing its users to rent Citi Bikes within the Transit app—only to see Lyft swiftly kill that functionality.
The battle is about more than one company’s efforts to drum up a little more business: It’s about fundamentally different visions of how people should access the growing number of modes available to navigate cities. Uber and Lyft each want to be your go-to mobility solution, and they recently overhauled their apps to position their core ride-hail service alongside e-scooter and bikeshare offerings, often with public transit. Third-party aggregator platforms like Transit, Citymapper, and Whim have a different vision. These apps cull information from as many mobility companies as they can. Unlike Uber and Lyft, these platforms don’t offer a transportation service themselves, which means they have less at stake in which e-scooter company you choose, or whether you jump on an Uber or the bus.
Both sides publicly embrace the concept of “Mobility as a Service” (MaaS), which nudges urban commuters away from driving by making it as easy as possible to choose among other transportation modes. The difference is that Uber and Lyft want to direct commuters toward the carefully curated constellation of services available within their app—a so-called walled garden. In contrast, third-party aggregators like Transit position themselves as a neutral platform where commuters can select from all available options.
There is inherent tension between the two visions. Uber and Lyft want to build brand loyalty and prevent customers from shopping around for a deal. (They have a history of squashing ride-hail price-comparison apps.) And, of course, a customer who uses an aggregator app to plan her next trip might have otherwise used Uber or Lyft.
The potential to drive bikeshare users to the Lyft app was a big reason the company plunked down $250 million in 2018 to purchase Motivate, the leading operator of bikeshare systems in North America. At the time of the acquisition, Motivate and Transit had signed an agreement to allow users of the Transit app to unlock Citi Bike bikes, but the Lyft acquisition stalled its implementation. Then, in May 2019, Lyft celebrated the integration of Citi Bike into its core app. This was a big deal: Since the app integration, Citi Bike set several ridership records.
Transit eventually concluded Lyft had no interest in announcing the integration the company had negotiated with Motivate, so the company decided to do so unilaterally. On September 9, Transit turned on the Citi Bike API integration, which allowed data to flow between Transit and Citi Bike in a way that enabled users to unlock bikes from within the Transit app. But within three days Lyft terminated the API, disabling the feature. According to a Lyft spokesman, Transit’s move was “a violation of the terms of our agreement with them.” Now commuters can purchase a Citi Bike trip only on the Lyft or Citi Bike apps.
That may be good for Lyft, but it’s ominous for New Yorkers seeking the freedom to unlock a bikeshare bike on whatever platform they choose. And it’s a direct threat to Transit, whose app became a lot less useful to multimodal users.
A clash between ride-hailing companies and open MaaS platforms like Transit was probably inevitable, and it’s not surprising that the first shots were fired in the Big Apple. In a unique arrangement, Lyft both owns and operates the Citi Bike system, leaving the city with limited ability to intervene. (Most other cities retained ownership of their bikeshare systems after building them with local and federal funds.) “The integration deals are voluntary contractual agreements between private companies,” said NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in an email. “The City is not a party to those private contracts and therefore can’t speak to the terms.” In other words, the city’s hands are tied while Lyft and Transit duke it out.
It’s likely that this is just the opening salvo in a battle that Transit sees as existential. In a recent blog post, the company accused Lyft of nothing less than “trying to shut [Transit] down” by blocking its access to bikeshare systems. Indeed, it’s easy to see how Lyft could pull the plug on other existing bikeshare API integrations with Transit. Commuters can currently use the Transit app to unlock bikes in numerous cities, including Chicago, Columbus, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis.* All these cities have bikeshare systems that are operated by Lyft through its acquisition of Motivate.
But while each city has its own bikeshare contract with Motivate/Lyft, the language about data access for third-party MaaS providers like Transit varies. Some contracts seem to leave wiggle room, like Chicago’s requirement that the Divvy bikeshare system operator work “in good faith” to allow third-party applications “to enable purchase of rides at publicly available rates.” When asked directly if the user experience of Transit users who purchase a Divvy trip will remain the same in the future, a Lyft spokesman demurred, saying only that “we plan to continue access to Divvy in the Transit app.”
Sean Wiedel, an assistant commissioner at the Chicago Department of Transportation, declined to say whether Lyft could cancel the ability for Transit users to unlock Divvy bikes, but he hopes the company won’t. “We want our residents to be able to unlock bikes and use the Divvy system in whatever way they like.”
For makers of city transportation policy, the conflict between Lyft and Transit raises some serious questions. One is whether a mobility service provider like Lyft should be able to leverage taxpayer-subsidized bikeshare systems to fortify the walled garden within its app. Another is whether—and how—cities should help residents easily plan and book trips across all available companies and services. After all, if Lyft succeeds in blocking Transit from unlocking bikeshare systems, it’s hard to see how another third-party MaaS provider like Whim or Citymapper could gain access in the future.
Urban transportation leaders are watching this dispute, and they are worried. “We’re entering a transportation era that will be built on open data, and denying access to it denies access to the street for people who depend on it,” Janette Sadik-Khan, the chair of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (and the NYCDOT Commissioner who launched Citi Bike), said in an email.
If cities want to intervene, what can they do? Gabe Klein, who launched bikeshare systems in both Chicago and Washington, D.C., when he led those cities’ transportation departments, says that local officials should clearly say, “We want an open system, we want open payments, and we want people to book trips through the app of their choice.” At the very least, cities negotiating or renegotiating contracts with Lyft could contain ironclad language ensuring data access for third-party MaaS providers.
Beyond public bikeshare, there is a broader question: Should cities take active steps to ensure that private mobility providers like ride-hailing and e-scooter companies also allow third-party MaaS integrators to offer in-app payments? That’s a strategy that European countries like Holland and France are exploring, and it could make sense in North America as well. If cities are serious about reducing car trips and making multimodal travel as easy as possible, they’ll want to remove the “friction” that frustrates those jumping between apps to find and book a trip. As the Citi Bike showdown in New York shows, it’s hard to reconcile that vision with the walled gardens Lyft and Uber are building within their apps.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story named three cities whose bikeshare systems are not operated by Lyft.